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The former head of the Grady County chapter of the NAACP threatened the Cairo City Council with a class-action lawsuit unless delinquent city utilities customers are refunded for what she claims were “erroneous” charges levied by the city.
Cindy Williams, who recently stepped down as the NAACP president, appeared before the mayor and council to issue the threat of litigation in person Tuesday night.
At issue is a discrepancy discovered last year between the city’s long standing billing policies, which are published each month on all utility bills, and the actual city ordinance governing late fees and reconnection fees.
Williams first approached the council about the alleged billing issue on Feb. 12.
“I’m returning to readdress these charges that were incorrectly assessed,” Williams said. “I’m rather disappointed this council has not reached a consensus on how to proceed.”
She told the council that both Mayor Booker Gainor and city manager Chris Addleton had been very accommodating and had met with her when requested, but she noted that neither of them has the authority to decide how to solve the alleged dispute, stating that only the city council has that power.
Williams also said there was no question whether an error had been made, but that the question before the council is how to correct the error.
“Some might say people should pay on time and there’d be no issue. He without sin should cast the first stone,” Williams said. However, she said the issue would still exist and is not going away.
She called for the council to “compensate citizens for the erroneous charges as soon as possible.”
Although the former NAACP head said that “legal intervention” would be the last resort, she promised that a “class action suit is eminent.”
Cairo City Attorney Thomas L. Lehman was absent Tuesday night and without legal representation available, the council did not ask questions or respond to Williams’ comments.
Mayor Gainor simply thanked her for her time.
Later in the meeting, during a public hearing on the proposed 2019-2020 city budget, Williams asked if the city had appropriated funding in the spending plan for the compensation of those allegedly charged late fees and reconnect fees improperly.
“Not at this time,” Mayor Gainor said.
On April 22, Addleton presented the mayor and council the summary of extensive research going back as far as 1947 in response to the complaint first raised by NAACP in February.
Based on the evidence presented by the city manager, he contends the city has been consistent in its policy regarding late fees for utilities customers and cut-off fees as stated on monthly utility bills.
However, until last September, the wording in the city’s code of ordinances did not correspond with the city’s long standing billing policy and no city official denies that fact now.
Addleton presented the council last month with a timeline covering utility billing and changes to billing practices dating back to August 1947 through the action taken Sept. 24, 2018 to make the billing policy printed on monthly utility bills match with the utilities ordinance.
The city manager also presented the council with copies of old bills from 1987, 1990, 1992, and 1996 that he said illustrated the city’s consistency in its billing practices. Late fees and service being cut off has been based, in practice, he said, on 19 days after the billing date and 29 days after the billing date, but the ordinance referenced due date rather than billing date.
The NAACP officials alleged that some city residents were assessed late fees and cutoff fees in contradiction with the ordinance.
Addleton acknowledges that the change in billing policy from 1991 was not reflected in the ordinance, but that it was outlined in the approved minutes of the city council from Aug. 12, 1991.
Addleton also pointed out Section 13-4 of the city’s code of ordinances regarding service rates and conditions as fixed. The ordinance states, “The governing body shall be vested with and hereby reserves the right from time to time as it may deem expedient, affix the rates and rate conditions applicable to all residential and commercial customers desiring natural gas, water, electricity and sewer service and solid waste collection and disposal, by proper motion or resolution entered on its minutes.”
Mayor Gainor said at the April 22 meeting that the city is governed by the ordinance and he recommended at that time that utilities customers be compensated within the limits of the statute of limitations.
On Tuesday night, Williams also said that the ordinance is the law and what the people are governed by, not meeting minutes.
The city manager in the past has contended, and continues to do so, that customers were notified of the city’s billing policies consistently each month on the monthly utility bill, which has always dictated the terms regarding late fees and reconnection fees. Addleton questioned how many utilities customers have actually read the code of ordinances.
The council directed Lehman last month to consult with legal representatives of the Georgia Municipal Association and to bring back a legal opinion regarding the dispute. Lehman has not presented his findings and he was absent Tuesday night.
Addleton has previously said that approximately $200,000 in late fees and reconnection fees are paid to the city by delinquent utility ratepayers annually.